Sunday Ekesi: Partnership is about respect

Sunday Ekesi of icipe
Sunday Ekesi of icipe. Photo from icipe

Sunday Ekesi is a research entomologist from Nigeria working at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe). He is currently leading a continent-wide initiative on the African fruit flies that threaten the production and export of fruits and vegetables. Its aim is to develop a cost-effective and sustainable technology for controlling the pest.

What are your research interests and focus?
I have a lot of curiosity for all aspects of reducing damage to crops by arthropod pests to raise productivity, increase income, and improve the livelihood of smallholder growers across Africa. I am interested in integrated pest management (IPM), the development and application of entomopathogens and baiting techniques for managing arthropod pests and their integration into habitat management and other IPM approaches.

The goal is to develop effective, economical, and environmentally sound approaches for managing arthropod pests and to reduce dependence on chemical pesticides.

My research center on the development of an IPM package that encompasses baiting techniques, classical biological control, application of augmentorium, entomopathogens, and postharvest treatment for quarantine fruit flies.

Tell us about the project on fruit flies
icipe and IITA are the pioneering institutions that address the fruit fly menace in Africa. The project, funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), involves developing and implementing an IPM program for three major mango pests—tephritid fruit flies (e.g., Bactrocera invadens and Ceratitis cosyra), mango seed weevil (Sternochetus mangiferae), and mealybugs (Rastrococcus iceryoides). These tree pests ravage mango, causing losses ranging from 30 to 80%, depending on locality, variety, and season. Fruit flies and mango seed weevil are also quarantine pests and quarantine restrictions limit the export of fruits to lucrative markets abroad.

In the project, icipe, IITA, and the University of Bremen, together with national agricultural research system (NARS) and advanced research institute (ARI) partners in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the USA are developing and implementing IPM programs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Bénin. The project aims to minimize the use of pesticides that lead to unwanted residues, and so to facilitate compliance with the standards required for domestic urban and export markets.

Any insights about partnership?
Partnership is about having common and complementary interests. Capacity and expertise can be strengthened only through partnerships and shared commitments. Partners have to believe that their work will make a difference. The scale and scope of work are usually amplified by the collaboration and it is in the interest of all scientists and centers to work with one another to solve pertinent problems to benefit the growers.

Above all, partnership is about respect for opinion and one another, affection, trust, and generosity. There is a lot that icipe and IITA can do together—projects that take a holistic approach to crop problems in which IPM is only one component.

Sunday Ekesi and a PhD student discuss fruit fly control methods with a mango grower
Sunday Ekesi and a PhD student discuss fruit fly control methods with a mango grower

Who are your other collaborators?
We work with the World Vegetable Center largely on managing red spider mite; also with the International Atomic Energy Agency in developing attractants for fruit fly management and rearing methods in support of the sterile insect technique and with the SP-IPM and other CGIAR centers that are interested in applying IPM for pest suppression.

I work with farmers with established orchards and involve them in formulating any research agenda from day one. Our national partners in all the target countries are the key to identifying farmers and farmer groups. They work with us from project planning to implementation and are vital to the success of the project.

What are your challenges?
I work mostly with alien invasive species where the first choice of management is classical biological control. This involves exploration for natural enemies in their aboriginal home. There are enormous challenges arising from the movement of biological control agents because of restrictions related to the Convention on Biological Diversity. No country is willing to allow any living organism to be taken from their environment for use in another country. Classical biological control is all about international public good yet it is becoming increasingly difficult to take natural enemies from one place to help in another country facing a devastating pest problem. We have not been able to bring in parasitoids of B. invadens to Africa from its putative aboriginal home of Sri Lanka. Similarly, it has been extremely difficult to obtain parasitoids of R. iceryoides from India for managing the pest in Kenya and Tanzania.

Another challenge is working on three complex insect pests at the same time. None of these pests is easy to deal with but by prioritizing the activities, sharing the tasks among partners, and ensuring that the milestones are achievable, we have been able to address the challenges. Coordination has been challenging but the partnership has been wonderful.

There are rewards as well. Being able to find affordable solutions to pest problems and seeing farmers apply the technologies—those make me happy. For example, in one of our project benchmark sites in Kenya, farmers previously could not sell mangoes to urban markets or export to lucrative markets in the Middle East because of the B. invadens problems. They are now able to do so by adopting technologies from the project. This is motivating and rewarding!

Thomas Dubois: Young scientist on the rise

Thomas Dubois, IITA
Thomas Dubois, IITA

Thomas Dubois joined IITA in 2003 to manage the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)-funded regional biocontrol project for banana, based in Uganda. This project has now made significant progress: banana infected with certain strains of endophytic fungi grow more vigorously and are better protected against pests and diseases. The development of this novel “bioprotection” is an exciting research theme that has the potential to revolutionize current thinking on biocontrol. Current focus of this project is to optimize inoculation techniques and scale up activities with commercial producers of tissue-cultured (TC) plants as part of a recently funded Eastern African Programme and Research Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biotechnology Policy Development (BIO-EARN) project in Kenya and Uganda.

In 2006, Thomas received the prestigious CGIAR Young Scientist Award. At present he is heading a BMZ project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. He is also spearheading the 2008 International Banana Conference in Mombasa, Kenya, as Chair of the Organizing Committee.

How did you come to IITA?
I studied bio-engineering first and then some foreign exchanges spurred my international ambitions. After my studies, in 1998, I was placed with IITA in Onne, southeast Nigeria. I absolutely fell in love with the then cowboy attitudes: nothing beats eating goat head, listening to Afropop in between oilrigs and blown up tankers! I liked the applied work, screening banana plants for nematode resistance, working under the supervision of Abdou Tenkouano and the late Paul Speijer. While I was at Onne, I was accepted at Cornell University to do my PhD studies in Insect Pathology. As I told Lukas Brader, the DG at that time, “I will be back.” After my PhD studies I was quickly involved in a fairly high-profile project with the United States Department of Agriculture, combating a devastating invasive insect species in the northern US; I traveled to China every year for prolonged periods of time. I toyed with the idea of entering Business School and tried to get into private industry. I settled with management consulting firms, using the Ivy League degree as leverage. I tried to get back into the CGIAR system and landed an 8-month stint with IITA in Uganda in 2003. This was a short project related to the use of endophytes, with no job security but ideal to get my foot in the door. I have been at IITA ever since.

What are some of your memorable experiences in research in the field or in the lab?
I like the applied and hands-on work. You can get much more done with a large dedicated team of staff, sometimes with less access to good infrastructure and facilities. I had to play farm manager for more than a year, doing activities from supplying water, fuel, and satellite dishes to keep the station running, to chasing away cows from encroaching the research fields in my spare time.

What are your realizations on the job?
I have come to appreciate several important realizations. First of all comes focus. It is easy to be carried away and drift into the development aspect of things. We are first and foremost scientists, on the applied side of science, publishing our work through peer-reviewed journals. It should be up to partner organizations to feed high-tech science upstream or to implement the work downstream. So choosing the right partners is essential. Secondly, teamwork is important. I started to fully appreciate this fairly late. Competition is natural in low quantities but, by definition, has no place in an institution that aims to do Research to nourish Africa. By working synergistically as a team and sometimes reaching out to other “competitor” organizations you would be surprised at what can be achieved in a short time and how the relationship can be swiftly turned into fruitful collaboration. Thirdly, at IITA, the sky seems to be the limit but sometimes you have to let go. One person simply cannot run two large international projects, write some more, fly to DR Congo to help with restructuring the agricultural sector, correct PhD theses, be a webmaster, and run a massive conference at the same time. My workload is insane but it is partly my fault.

What are your future plans?
In the immediate future, I would focus on my project on improving market pathways for TC banana centered on commercial TC producers and nursery distribution centers. Also, commercialization of the technology with private enterprises—this is what the BIO-EARN project is trying to do. At some point later, I hope to leave science and secure a managerial position with more job security as well. Deep down I know I am not a scientist “pure sang”. Moving on to the bigger scheme of things can be anything, ranging from research management, policy, advocacy, consultancy to donor relations.

Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA
Dubois examining a banana plant. Photo by IITA

Any advice for colleagues?
I am among the youngest at IITA so I should be receiving advice from others! A strong focus has been on mentoring students and I would hope that some colleagues would train more students. I have been supervising over 25 students in the last 5 years, both those from within Africa and European-based MSc students who do their research at IITA-Uganda. Benefits are manifold for them and IITA. Secondly, I think IITA folk could benefit if they “sell” themselves a bit more, through radio, TV, websites, and the popular press. Benefits include changing donor conceptions and misconceptions, putting science in the forefront, and ultimately benefiting farmers. Thirdly, it has helped me to think a lot out of the box and be a generalist. I came as an entomologist with a title of “biocontrol specialist”. Now I am running a socioeconomic project entirely focused on market pathways for banana seed systems. One could look out of the box for good private sector players or partners. This is essential, in my opinion, for long-term sustainability.

What is your dream for Africa?
I hope Africa will, at some point, be weaned off the many donor agencies, volunteering organizations, and NGOs that seem to be becoming a sustainable big-bucket business rather than a means to an end. A conducive climate for private sector development, together with good governance, is what I wish for sub-Saharan Africa.